STEELERS Pittsburgh eyes three-peat on Sunday
The Steelers have two wins over Cleveland this season.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Several Cleveland Browns players are welcoming their wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers because it matches them against a familiar, easy-to-dislike opponent.
"I'm glad we've got Pittsburgh," wide receiver Dennis Northcutt said. "It's a team that's in our division, a team I think we can beat."
Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who will sub for the injured Tim Couch, said, "I don't think you can ask for a better scenario."
The Steelers' response?
Jerome Bettis said only the second playoff game ever between two of the NFL's biggest rivals is just what the Steelers (10-5-1) need to make the transition from the regular season to the lose-or-else playoffs.
"They know us," he said, "and we know them."
Last time in 1994
Just as in 1994, the Steelers can beat the Browns three times in the same season. Sometimes that's difficult to do against any team, much less one's biggest rival.
Then, their 29-9 playoff decision in Pittsburgh was the easiest of the three. They also won 17-10 in Cleveland and 17-7 in Pittsburgh in the most-hyped Steelers regular-season game since their Super Bowl run during the 1970s.
That playoff game was the last for the Browns before former owner Art Modell's team moved to Baltimore and was replaced by a new franchise in 1999.
"Oh, no question," Bettis said, agreeing that playing Cleveland makes this weekend more special. "We played each other very tight and both games were very close. It tells you these teams are pretty evenly matched."
The Steelers' season may have turned with their 16-13 overtime victory over Cleveland on Sept. 29, when quarterback Tommy Maddox came off the bench to lead two scoring drives and prevent an 0-3 start.
Both teams missed overtime field goal chances, but Pittsburgh's Todd Peterson converted his second-chance opportunity after the Steelers recovered his blocked attempt behind the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers won the rematch 23-20 in Cleveland on Nov. 3.
Browns a different team
Still, coach Bill Cowher said so much has changed in the two months since the teams last met, such as the emergence of Browns running back William Green, that the previous games mean very little.
"I'm sure they're a more confident team since we played them," Cowher said Tuesday. "They've taken on a different personality, and they've won a lot of close games. They won't be intimidated. They're 6-2 on the road, with a better road record than they have at home (3-5)."
The Steelers don't have many injury concerns, but linebacker Kendrell Bell's sprained ankle is a major worry.
Bell missed most of the first five weeks of the season after twice spraining the same ankle, and he injured it again Sunday against Baltimore.
The latest injury is worse than the Steelers initially thought, and he is listed as questionable.
Cornerback Chad Scott (broken right thumb) also is questionable.
Bell, last year's NFL defensive rookie of the year, has four sacks in his last five games.
Unlike a year ago, when the Steelers were heavily favored to win the AFC before being upset by New England in the conference championship game, they face a far more difficult task without a first-round bye and home-field advantage.
Difficult road ahead
Even if they win Sunday, they must win twice more, possibly both times on the road, just to reach the Super Bowl. Don't think Cowher won't mention the Steelers' underdog status -- or the Browns' very-apparent confidence -- during his pregame talks to his players.
"Do we have a difficult road ahead of us? Yeah, we do," he said. "But that's what sports are all about. It's about seizing opportunities when they come and not getting caught up in hype or worrying where you have to go next.
"You climb one little hill at a time and, before you know it, you might be at the top."